Leader Blues

Saturday, September 16, 2006

TOP STORY>>Foul-ups cost city $132,788 in grants

IN SHORT: Jacksonville is looking for a new housing director after federal audit.

By PEG KENYON
Leader staff writer

Jacksonville is looking for a new executive director of its housing authority, following the departure of its long-time manager amid charges of mismanagement, including the loss of $132,788 in federal grants because they were not spent on time.

A federal review also claims lack of paperwork and bidding requirements, as well as backdated contracts, undocumented hours for a security officer who was seldom seen on the premises and little or no concern for the welfare of residents.

This summer, Virginia Simmons, Jacksonville Housing Authority’s executive director for about 14 years, resigned as the federal probe got underway.

Ferrell Gray, Robert Colford and Robert Whatlely, three of the four commissioners on the JHA board, followed in her footsteps by also stepping down. Johnny Moory has previously resigned due to a family illness. With these four vacancies, Fred West decided to stay on as the only remaining commissioner on the JHA board.

Federal Housing and Urban Development officials requested for all contracts and purchase orders be pulled and made available for June 28, according to the HUD review document obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. On June 27, a JHA employee informed HUD that Simmons had directed her to create four contracts and to call contractors to come to the office and sign the contracts.

On the same day, Simmons “admitted to Mr. Jesse Westover, public housing director, the Little Rock field office, that she had falsely reported program obligation under the FY 2003 Capital Fund Program on Sept. 15, 2005 in the amount of $132,788.11,” long past the deadline to spend the grant, according HUD officials.

HUD officials concluded these actions were taken in an attempt of the then JHA executive director to document evidence to support contracts had legitimately been entered into before the obligation end date of Sept. 16, 2005.

The review also alleges the local housing authority “did not properly advertise for bids in excess of $25,000” or adequately keep documentation of solicitations. These deficiencies may require further investigation.

Looking ahead, Jim Durham, one of the four newly appointed JHA board members, told The Leader he had not received the HUD review, but there is a pressing need to search for a new executive director to oversee day-to-day operations of the Max Howell Place apartment complex and housing voucher program to subsidize rent payments for low-income families.

He and two of the other commissioners along with Mary Boyd, interim executive director for JHA, will meet at noon Thursday to discuss criteria necessary to find a qualified person to do the job.

Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim, who has received a copy of the HUD review, says one of the biggest issues facing the JHA is the bidding process for contracts over $25,000.

He says HUD is continuing to investigate this matter.